'My fuel's run down, my meter's run out'

In the second instalment of his 'live' novella, Will Self, shut up in a Soho gallery and on view to every casual visitor, takes us on a rickshaw journey through London's rank underbelly The story so far... Shortly after lunch in a Soho trattoria, a fat, middle-aged City businessman is knocked unconscious by a hit-and-run cycle rickshaw. He lies in the Dean Street gutter, waiting for an ambulance that may never come, listening to the Babel of voices all around him and reflecting on the smell of baby-oil, the noise of drilling, the street styles and Italian retro-chic of London's smelly heart. We learn that his lunch was an adulterous encounter with a young blonde woman, intent on ending their affair. Now read on.
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Puff-puff-poof, puff-puff-poof. Gotta keep a rhythm going here - lift myself up to the beat and sustain it. Past the young woman with her hair back in a cold cross bun, clouds of disapproval casting shadows over her hilly face. She's wearing one of those jackets purpose-designed for herding urban sheep, her marsupial hands are dug into her hip pouches. What've you been up to, darling, on the black fell?

Puff-puff-poof, puff-puff-poof. Gotta keep a rhythm going here - lift myself up to the beat and sustain it. Past the young woman with her hair back in a cold cross bun, clouds of disapproval casting shadows over her hilly face. She's wearing one of those jackets purpose-designed for herding urban sheep, her marsupial hands are dug into her hip pouches. What've you been up to, darling, on the black fell?

Puff-puff-poof, puff-puff-poof. Past the urbane greying mop-top in sneakers and a steel-banded Rolex. Nowadays, everyone happening looks like a has-been, never before has the future appeared so dated.

Puff-puff-poof, puff-puff-poof... Round the corner of Dean Street, by the stinky rank, stands a statuesque blonde with a bit of the Hindu pantheon painted on her double frontage. She's got a big bag, this one. Every fucker in this city carries a bag nowadays: tote bags, grope bags, little black bags that prove that they-are-a-camera. But she's gotta big one. What're they all up to? Transporting their chattels from one side of town to another; embarking, like the landless pastoralists they are, on a diurnal pilgrimage to bring a copy of the Evening Standard, or a wad of Kleenex, down to these smoky lowlands. Why bother?

In my line of work, you get to assess someone's heft, bulk, weight and bodily disposition in a matter of seconds. What I do is all about carting the living dead around town, using solely my own muscle. I'm the Burke and Hare of bicycling. So, when Carlo - the ponce who runs this excuse for a transport company - introduces me to my next fare, the first thing I do is give them a once-over. Distance x weight = effort. That's the equation we're looking at here.

"Take these two down to St James's Park and run 'em around a little, will you?" For a hideous moment I think he means I should load up the big blonde, her big bag, and her breast full of Vishnu - but no. I'm in luck: it's the anaemic little blonde that he's indicating, who's wearing a red shift dress emblazoned with a big hand. She'll be no trouble. She's no more than a rearview-mirror dingle-dangle of a woman.

She's got a companion no bigger than herself, another woman in a painted top. She's sporting dungarees and a painted mouth which she opens to query - as she climbs on board my rickshaw - "Does anybody talk to you? Or is that not done?" I grunt, but would like to reply: "This isn't a fucking Big Red Bus tour, darling, all I'm offering you is a spin. Still... keep shtoom, and maybe - just maybe - I'll get you there intact."

Puff-puff-poof. Puff-puff-puff-and... pooof! An exhalation of rancid effort. Even with these two pint-sized women behind me, it's still an effort to get the cycle rickshaw moving along Old Compton Street. I'm not that big a guy - just wiry with exertion and cranked up to the gills with bathtub amphetamine. By the time I'm passing the Admiral Duncan I've got a decent momentum going and the duo in the back let out the first of what I know will be many little trills of embarrassment. Who can blame them? It's shaming, the way I'm prepared to prostitute my body in this fashion, sell my brute strength so that they can do a little sightseeing.

Left into Wardour Street and down to the lights. No poofs any more, so I'll have to find another collection of stereotypes to act as pacers. And here they are, like bipedal bollards studding my path, the ubiquitous men-in-T-shirts- and-trainers (or never-been-on-deck shoes) who constitute the walk-on actors in any urban, summer context. I pass three silent choristers in one quick spurt: the first with hands on hips, the second with hand on chin, the third has his arms crossed to snuggle his lack of bosom. Hold no evil, clutch no good, grasp nothing of consequence.

That's my trio, my beat, my riff: T-shirt, T-shirt, trainers, T-shirt,T-shirt-trainers. I'll scope the street ahead for every place I can spot three of these types and then slot them into my mantra of propulsion: T-shirt, T-shirt, trainers,T-shirt, T-shirt-trainers...

The anaemic blonde and her pal - I can clock them in the wing mirror, their red mouths opening like morning glories in this sweat-damp air. Off to one side, out the corner of my eye some combat-trousered bozo who fancies himself in Sierra Leone, or the Congo, or on manoeuvres with the Taliban, lifts his wastepaper bin of a lens to capture me, the rickshaw cyclist, and other significant rubbish swirling behind me.

"What d'you think of his tattoo?" It's the blonde. "What d'you think it's of?" replies her companion. "Ooh, dunno, but I've got one just the same." Do they consider this to be some kind of a flirtation? Do they think I'm going to zip them down to St James's, take them a couple of times around the pond, then run them to ground in a copse, bed them on dead leaves, soft twigs, crushed Coke cans, and wads of never-to-be-fish-and-chip-papers? It occurs to me to swivel and tell them to shut the fuck up...

But hell, no time for that; we're at the bottom of Shaftesbury Avenue. Up on the pedals, push down, and plunge towards the very point of Eros's arrow. If only that little stone toddler would unloose the thing and transfix my pumping aorta. But who's around here for me to fall in love with?

That clumpy-shoed snout-maiden, with the denim skirt and the heavy black denim waistcoat? I think not. With her dumb pendant she strikes me as a little bit too dependent. The henna-head in the open-toed sandals, blue jeans, and over-shrunk, patterned top? I'd rather not.

T-shirt, T-shirt, trainers,T-shirt, T-shirt-trainers... It would certainly shock the hell out of the duo in the back if I were to tell them where I spent last night, where I woke up this morning, and who I was with. In Chiswick, of all places, down by the river, waterfowl gurgling through the open window; and disporting themselves on either side of me in the wide, flat bed, a couple of such incontestably haut bourgeois coolness, that I hardly noticed when they came... or went. Still, even if they were a lousy lay, the croissants and compote were on the house.

I got this duo from outside the Duchess Theatre after the performance of Copenhagen. All the way through town they bored on about Niels Bohr, as if they had been personally responsible for the discovery of quantum mechanics. "Take me down to the Reform Club, would you... erm... driver? Cyclist? What exactly should I call you?" he said. "Call me Chris," I replied, "because that's my name." "Right... yeah... Chris - d'you know where the Reform Club is?" "Of course I know where the fucking Reform Club is - I'm a member - it's a liberal club ain't it?" Well, this got them chortling a bit - they must've crammed a few down in the crush bar in between acts.

Last night, when we reached the Reform Club, I locked up the rickshaw, borrowed a tie from the frock-coated lackey on the door, and joined mine host and hostess for a few late-night whiskey sours in the gloomy atrium. Yeah - they were sour, but David and Chloe sweetly invited me back with them for some chilly, Chiswick copulation on icy linen. When I skulked off along the Thames towpath the following morning (they'd left already for work, leaving me to eat my petit déjeuner with the Filipina maid in attendance), I felt like I'd just assassinated a television presenter.

So, past the Reform Club again and on along Pall Mall, through the gate and into the park. The anaemic blonde asks me to stop by a wheeled cooking bin, behind which stands an economic migrant with a beard that looks like the pubic hair of a mullah, transplanted to his chin. Christ knows where this character has cropped up from - he looks like he might have floated away from the Albanian shore on a car-tyre inner tube, or rolled in a barrel over the Iran-Iraq border. He's an international citizen of the 400-per-cent-marked-up can of Coca-Cola.

"Wa' you wa'?" he queries, and the blonde, leaning over the side of the rickshaw, as if she were Lady Caroline fucking Lamb out for a tootle in her brougham, asks, "How much are those hot dogs?" "To you ladies o'ly four poun'." "Four pounds! For one lousy hot dog." "You find one cheaper - you tell me!" he exclaims.

"Would you like one, driver?" the brunette asks me, and much as I like the idea of the Albanian loony scalping them for 12 quid, I can't stand the thought of that much grease trickling into me. It's not the oil change I had in mind.

Suddenly I'm not having fun any more. My fuel's run down, my meter's run out, my sense of humour is senseless. I need more speed. For speed I must have speed. Speed = speed. Alarmingly simple, that.

"Look," I say to the anaemic blonde and the brunette with the painted T-shirt and the slapdash mouth, "I've got to head back into Soho now, you can either come along for the ride or get out right away. Your call." "I'm sorry?" says the blonde, "I thought you were going to take us around the park first. We've hired you to do a job for us..." Her reedy voice is piping up, and a big, dark-suited character with a grey, iron-filing beard and professorial spectacles is taking an interest - "... and you've got to do it."

"Got to?" I snarl. "I don't see any metropolitan cab licence on this rickshaw, mama, I don't see no code of practice printed on my arse. I do what I please. I'm a wildcat rickshaw pedaller - if you will."

They get out. They even give me a tip. Try as they may, people can't help trying to confound your expectations, trying to impose their individuality on situations that are inherently anonymous. But trying - I always say - is lying. Too late now to get another beat going, I'll just have to rely on this one to take me around Trafalgar Square, where the big statue of the small man stands on the tall pole ("Bird shit, bird shit, I see no bird shit... ") and on up Charing Cross Road.

I can feel my strength ebbing with every go-round of the pedals, every lurch of the cranky rickshaw. I wheeze, I sweat, I slobber with a dry mouth. Gotta make it back to the clipper-joint haircutters where I score my speed. Gotta get wired again. Into Shaftesbury Avenue (T-shirt, T-shirt, trainers, T-shirt, T-shirt-trainers), turn into Greek Street (T-shirt, T-shirt, trainers, T-shirt, T-shirt-trainers... Shit!). There's a lorry blocking the road. Turn again into Old Compton - I'll have to go the wrong way up Dean Street, nothing for it.

And then, just at the point when I'm accelerating towards my destination, some drunken suit comes staggering out of Zilli's and, without looking, begins to plunge across the road. I haven't a second to swerve or avoid him and I don't. My front wheel hits his thigh and he whirls like a portly dervish, then goes down like a cow felled by a bolt in the brain. Do I consider even for a millisecond if I should stop and help him? No. Absolutely not. To be hit by a car is one thing - but to be run down by a cycle rickshaw? You'd have to say the guy was asking to be the butt of everything life in London has to offer.

To be continued...

Story abridged by John Walsh

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